Over the course of her career, actress Thora Birch has had the opportunity to work with some of the industry’s greatest talents, including Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Harrison Ford, Harvey Keitel and Jeremy Irons. However, her first claim to fame was as the chubby-cheeked child in the Quaker Oats commercials, starring alongside the company’s spokesman Wilford Brimley. From there, she was cast as a regular on the shows Day by Day and Parenthood and began to land roles in a multitude of movies, including Hocus Pocus, Monkey Trouble, Clear and Present Danger, Now and Then and Alaska. In 1999, she scored her most notable part to date: that of Jane Burnham in American Beauty.
Afterwards, she continued to accumulate film credits, playing memorable characters in Smokers, Dungeons & Dragons, The Hole, Ghost World, Silver City, Slingshot, Dark Corners, Winter of Frozen Dreams, Deadline, and Petunia. In addition, she did guest spots on the shows Night Visions and My Life as a Teenage Robot. Now, she is starring in the new sci-fi series Colony as software engineer Morgan, who makes her debut in the episode airing tonight. Talk Nerdy With Us recently had the opportunity to participate in a conference call in which Birch chatted about her new role on Colony, her upcoming film The Etruscan Smile and what she’d do in the event of an actual occupation. Check it out below!
You’ve done a lot of movies over the years but you haven’t done much TV. What was it about “Colony” that made you take the leap into something that might have more of a commitment? And, did you have any reservations in doing it?
Well, I think when somebody is considering TV they always have a few reservations because, number one, time commitment is always an issue. But, at the same time, the premise of “Colony” was so interesting to me because it’s right in—it walks that very fine line of being completely sci-fi, but at the heart of it, it is a family drama. And so marrying the two worlds of the interpersonal relationship with the big, high concept was something that I was really interested in.
You play Morgan, a laidback software engineer with a conscience. How did you prepare for this role?
So, I don’t have a lot of experience in the whole tech world, but I responded to my character’s determination to have an impact and to make her presence known in one way or another. And so she’s got—she’s kind of the complete package. She’s got the know-how and she’s got the balls to pull off some amazing stuff.
You said that your character is a software engineer. Besides that, what more can you tease about your character and how she’s going to fit in into the overall show, starting in Thursday’s episode?
Okay, so I’m not 100% completely clued in as far as my character’s trajectory, either. But she is working on the Resistance side of things. She is not a Collaborator. She’s definitely a Resister. And her journey is only just starting. Like these two episodes that you’re going to see this coming week and next week, it’s only the beginning.
Okay, so it’s more than just a recurring role? Should we possibly expect to see the character more in…
No, it is recurring. I have no idea how it’s all going to wind up. But it is a recurring role. But she’s playing a part in a major operation that kind of wraps up the season really nicely and kind of leaves the audience, you know, really wanting more.
What is it like for you as an actress coming into a show towards the end of its season?
There’re two major benefits. One is everyone, by the time I got on set, everyone had a really good feel for what they were doing and where they were going.
The other thing is, as I come in at a story point which is, it’s the tail end of one era in the show and it’s the beginning of another. So I really get to come in during that transitionary section where things are really shifting and really changing. And I don’t know that much about where my character is going, but I can’t wait to find out.
What do you find similar to your character Morgan, and what do you feel are you different from your character?
So Morgan is a little bit more Type A. She is—you know, she’s got this whole knowledge in a world that I personally don’t share. I don’t share her set of skills. But, she does have a determination. And she’s very passionate, which is something that I can completely relate to.
With Quayle dead, this is a different cell. What do you believe they can accomplish?
I think they’re kind of limitless. They—it’s a trifecta of skillsets. So you’ve got me as a software engineer. You have an Avionics guy, and you have even more of a tech person. So we really are a unit. Without going into what happens too much, I’ll just say that probably our characters could not exist outside of each other. Like the three of our characters and ourselves is pretty – like we rely on each other big time.
Okay, in a real world invasion by aliens or otherwise, do you think that you would be on the invader’s side or the Resistance side, and why?
I’m going to have to go with Resistance on this because it’s just a personal thing. But seriously, nobody invades my country or my city. Like that just doesn’t happen on my watch without me doing something about it. Like that’s just kind of how I am.
Would you ever be a double agent?
Oh, hell yes. In a heartbeat.
What did you enjoy the most working with the cast? And do you have any behind-the-scenes funny moments that you can share?
Yes. So I kind of love this whole thing that’s very new to me and which is, just being thrown in the middle of something, not really having a great sense of where I’m going with the character.
Usually, I’m pretty well-informed. I know where I’m going and what I’m doing and how it’s all going to wind up. This time, I don’t have that. I really don’t know what’s going to happen with Morgan.
And also, on the first day, my first day was the worse first day ever. They literally just throw me—threw me in like a pile of gravel. I was rolling around in rocks and like running. Like I haven’t run in forever. So I get on set and they’re like “Great, here’s your kneepads.” And I’m like, “Okay sounds good.”
Would you say that you’re a sci-fi fan? And if you are, what shows, movies, or books bring out the nerd in you?
Okay, so I’m a little bit more of an intellectual kind of science fiction fan. My favorite story ever—my favorite short story is “Harrison Bergeron.” So that’s kind of where I live, just emotionally. But getting to work on something like this is so much fun because, like I said, it’s completely unpredictable. You never know what’s going to be hitting you.
Definitely. That’s a great choice too. I love that short story.
Yes, it’s great. It’s phenomenal.
You have done a lot of work in movies, TV, and some plays and some in theater. What would you say is different and similar about working in the three different media forms?
I mean, every single medium is completely different. So television has its own world. Movies have their own life, and then something like this, the theater where you’re blessed to be rehearsing, mainly the bulk of your work is rehearsing. But on something like “Colony,” it’s really fun because I have no expectations. I have to come in with no game plan. I don’t know where I’m going. The character is built behind me and I have to constantly play catchup. So that’s one thing that’s really fun about working on Colony. Like you just don’t know where you’re going.
Do you have a preference on any medium?
It’s all an exercise. So for me, it’s about variety more than anything. Like kind of changing it up is the best part. I’m really lucky to be able to do that creatively.
What have you kind of taken away from your experiences being a part of this project, and what has this project meant to you?
So my character is completely—she’s immersed in a collaborative process. She does not exist on her own. She really, heavily relies on the other characters to be there. And for me, working on the show has actually been quite the same. You know I come in, I don’t really know where I’m going or what the next day is going to look like. But you have the support team of Carlton and Ryan and Sarah and Cory, and just these amazing people who, even on your first day they kind of make you feel really welcome. And so that sense of community has been really nice. You don’t always develop that on a project. And on this one, I did.
And I know that you’re a part of social media. Are you looking forward to the instant fan feedback and connection through that as well, for the episode?
I kind of avoid it. I kind of avoided the whole social media aspect for many, many years. I kind of enjoyed not being a Twitter member. And it was explained to me that that outlook just really needs to end. That you can engage with your fans more directly and it’s actually a really fulfilling thing. So I’m enjoying being new to that whole world. I’m kind of just getting started and I’m loving it.
Do you have any theories on what’s going on in the show?
Oh, my theories would be so dangerous. Like if I actually—if I actually shared every thought that I have about where this could be going, I’d probably get sued. Like it would be legal action taken against me. I know one thing. Whatever I think – whatever I think right now, it’s not going to be that. Whatever I think, it’s going to be something completely different. So I could tell you my theories, but they’re all going to be wrong.
The switch to film – to TV, we’re seeing a lot more actors and actresses make that move. Is that something that, now that you’ve kind of broken through and done it, that you’re looking forward to doing again? And can you tell us a little bit about what else you’ve got going on in the near future?
So I’m in San Francisco right now. I’m on production on a film called “The Etruscan Smile” with Brian Cox, Street Williams, Peter Coyote, and J.G. Field and me. So—and that’s a lovely little—it’s based on the book by Juan Luis San Pedro. It’s a Spanish novel and it’s really fun. It’s a small little ending but it’s got a story with a great heart. And what’s nice is being able to go back and forth between a small, intimate little story like this, and something much more high-concept, which is “Colony.” And, I love being a part of it because I don’t exactly know where I’m going. They’re literally just like, show up here, say these lines today and tomorrow. Something could be completely different.
Given your busy schedule, are you able to watch Colony from the beginning as a fan, or is it kind of, I’ve done that and now I’m moving on to something else?
Me and my boyfriend, we make a point to watch “Colony” every Thursday. Like that’s our thing, like no matter what we’re doing or where we’re going, we always find time to just catch the new episode. It’s nice because I actually had advanced copies of the script, but I didn’t read them. Like I’m only just watching as a fan. So, I’m right ahead with you guys.
Can you say how it was that you came to get this role in the first place? And also, what is it that you would say makes Colony unique?
So the script just appeared in my inbox one day. It was “Hey, take a look at this part. Take a look at the show.” And I saw that Carlton and Ryan were involved and I was like completely, immediately interested. And getting into the script, it’s one of those things where it seems really simple. It seems really simple when you first look at it. Like oh, it’s an invasion. Los Angeles is completely blocked off. But the further you get into it, the more elaborate it gets. But at the end of the day it’s still a family drama, and I love that. I love that it’s still about an emotional, real house of people. So it has this huge, high concept but it’s still all about people.
How do you compare Colony to other occupation narratives such as World War II narratives or other types of like alien invasions like “District 9” or something like that?
Okay, so “District 9” was a video game before it was a movie, correct? That was – it was a completely different…I mean, it was high concept in a different way. You literally have people turning into cockroaches you know, right in front of your very eyes. This story is so much more focused on how these events impact the individual? How does this colonized nearly post-apocalyptic scenario play out in your everyday life? And that’s what this show focuses on, which I think is a refreshing take on it. I mean, we always see World War II stories that are all about the war. They’re about the war and nothing else. This is about “How does somebody wake up in the morning, comfort their children, send them off to school, and then go carry out their like everyday lives? How does that happen in an occupied world?” It’s kind of fascinating.
Do you have a favorite type of alien?
The ones that you never see are completely fine with me (laughs). Like I have a theory that aliens completely exist, but they’re so busy they just don’t care about us and, I like it that way. They can stay out of my life. I’ll stay out of theirs. It’s all good.
Besides your character, who is your favorite character on Colony and why?
For me, it’s really all about Katie. I mean she is just—she’s not only completely following her gut as far as just being the mom, the matriarch. Like she’s totally in control of the entire situation. You are not messing with her, ever. And I love that strength. That feminine power that she has. I mean she manages to be vulnerable and powerful all in one second and I love that in a female character. But also she actually embodies that in real life.
Yes, and I think she does too. I mean all of her roles, I think she plays—she manages to portray…
She’s one strong cookie. She is a tough woman. I love her.
New episodes of Colony air on Thursdays at 10:00 pm ET/PT on USA.